Tag Archives: Russia

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. Jodi Daynard)

Back in 2013, I was captivated by Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (1947), an existential novel that explored questions of coincidence, fate, love and death. I read it pre-blog, but it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere. Originally published in 1930, An Evening with Claire was Gazdanov’s first novel, written during his time as a Russian émigré in Paris. It was an instant success, resonating strongly with the displaced population across Europe as a whole. In writing this novel, Gazdanov drew heavily on his own life via a series of memories covering his childhood, his time in the Russian Civil War and his impressions of an enigmatic young woman named Claire, the figure captured in the book’s title.

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As the novel opens, the narrator – a young man named Sosedov, but referred to as Kolya throughout – has recently reconnected with Claire, a French woman he first met some ten years earlier in 1917. Kolya has been spending his evenings with Claire at her home in Paris, the lady’s husband being away on an extended trip to Ceylon. While Claire sleeps, Kolya reflects on the time he has spent desiring her over the years, the woman who has occupied his mind for the past decade.

Surrendering to the power of sleep, or sadness, or yet another emotion, no matter how strong the emotion was she never ceased being herself; and it seemed that the mightiest tremors were powerless to alert this perfectly completed body, could never destroy this final invincible charm which had induced me to waste ten years of my life in pursuit of Claire, and which had made it impossible for me to get her out of my mind at any time, any place. (p. 28)

This process triggers a series of memories for Kolya as he gradually comes to remember everything that has happened in his life, particularly the events of his first eighteen years. While the difficulty of understanding and articulating everything seems immense, Kolya proceeds to explore his childhood and adolescence through a stream of associations, moving seamlessly from one recollection to another over the course of the novel. We hear of the young boy’s close relationship with his father, a man obsessed with fires and hunting, a man whom Kolya loved very dearly at the time. By contrast, Kolya’s mother is portrayed as a relatively cold and controlled woman, someone who showed little warmth and affection in her dealings with the children. Nevertheless, Kolya respected her a great deal.

From a relatively early age, Kolya’s life was marked by the shadow of death. He was just eight years old when his father died, and by the time of the Great War both of his sisters had followed suit.      

Death was never far away, and the abyss into which my imagination plunged me seemed to belong to it. I think this feeling was hereditary: It was not for nothing that my father so violently detested everything that reminded him of the inevitable end; this fearless man felt his weakness here. It was as though my mother’s unconscious, cold indifference reflected someone’s final stillness, and the ravenous memories which my sisters possessed absorbed everything into themselves so quickly because, somewhere in their distant foreboding, death already existed. (p. 60)

As a consequence, Kolya was left alone with his mother, a woman who struggled to come to terms with the losses that had touched her family.

At various times during his childhood, Kolya felt as though he was turning in on himself, a process which left him somewhat immune to the external events that were happening around him. This feeling emerged once again when Kolya was sent to military school, a place he disliked a great deal. Given that the other cadets seemed so different, Kolya kept his distance from the rest of the pack, a move that also caused him to develop an instinct for self-preservation when dealing with his tutors.

The novel touches on various stories and anecdotes from Kolya’s time at both the military school and the gymnasium that followed, too many to capture here. While several of these memories are melancholy in tone, there are recollections of happier times as well: the summers Kolya spent at his grandfather’s house in Caucasus where many of his father’s relatives also lived; memories of Claire too, especially Kolya’s first encounter with her at the tennis courts of the gymnastics society (Kolya was around fourteen at the time). From the moment he first set eyes on eighteen-year-old Claire, Kolya was captivated by her presence. A native of Paris, Claire had travelled to Russia with her family; her father, a merchant, had a base in Ukraine which he visited every now and again. Kolya and the coquettish Claire spent much of the summer together, laughing and joking at Claire’s house. Even so, Kolya was acutely aware of Claire’s blossoming sexuality, something he did not fully understand at the time despite being able to feel it. By late autumn that year, Claire had all but disappeared from Kolya’s life, a development which left the young boy feeling rather bereft.

The final third of the novel focuses on the time Kolya spent with the White Army in the Russian Civil War, a somewhat arbitrary move motivated by the desire to know what war was like, to experience the new and unknown. (Kolya readily admits that his decision was not driven by any political beliefs or ideals; he could have just as easily joined the Reds had they been in possession of his part of the country at the time.) The memories of his departure for the front at the age of sixteen are imbued with a tender sense of melancholy, a tone which is so characteristic of this haunting novel.

It was late autumn, and in the cold air I could feel the sorrow and the regret characteristic of every departure. I was never able to accustom myself to this feeling; for me, every departure marked the beginning of a new existence and consequently, the necessity of living once again by groping, of finding once more among the people and things surrounding me, a more or less intimate environment in which to recapture my former tranquillity, so needed to make space for those inner oscillations and shocks with which I was so greatly preoccupied. (p. 105)

Kolya’s time in the war gave him a deep insight into the psychology of human behaviour; while stationed at the front he witnessed several instances of bravery, cowardice and fear. This section is packed with stories, anecdotes and memories of Kolya’s comrades, including tales of some of the scoundrels he encountered during this period. By the summer of 1920, Kolya had made his way to Sevastopol where he witnessed some of the emotional fallout from the war. The atmosphere in this desperate city seemed to reflect all the eternal sorrow and melancholy of provincial Russia, a feeling that is captured in this next passage.

I saw tears in the eyes of usually unsentimental people. Having deprived them of their homes, families and dinner parties, the Revolution had suddenly given them the ability to feel deep regret, and for an instant liberated from their coarse, warlike casing their long-forgotten, long-lost emotional sensitivity. It was as if these people were taking part in a minor-keyed symphony of the theater hall; they saw for the first time that there was a biography and a history to their lives, and a lost happiness which they had only read about in books, (p. 133)

An Evening with Claire is a deeply introspective novel, one that offers a rare insight into a vanished world. Kolya’s memories are shot through with a gentle sense of sadness and regret coupled with a noticeable yearning for Claire. Perhaps this reunion in Paris represents a new beginning for Kolya, an element of hope for the future? I’d like to think so.

Guy and Karen have also reviewed this book – just click on the links to read their reviews.

An Evening with Claire is published by Overlook Duckworth / Ardis; personal copy.

Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

One of my favourite reads from last year was Subtly Worded, a fascinating collection of short stories and reminiscences by the esteemed Russian writer, Teffi. Having enjoyed this book so much, I was delighted to hear that Pushkin Press would be publishing two more works by Teffi in 2016: Rasputin and Other Ironies, which brings together the best of Teffi’s non-fiction pieces, and a memoir, Memories – from Moscow to the Black Sea. (Both books are now available and are also published in the US by NYRB Classics.)

In this post, I’ll be discussing Rasputin and Other Ironies, but before I tell you more about this most intriguing collection, a few words on Teffi herself. Teffi – her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya – was born in 1872 into a prominent and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of forty, she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles.

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The pieces in Rasputin and Other Ironies have been grouped into four sections, the first of which, How I Live and Work, gives us a view of Teffi’s life as a writer. We see Teffi living and working in a little pension in Paris, her writing table doubling as a dining table, a dressing table and a home for her various possessions. In My Pseudonym, we hear the story behind her adoption of Teffi as a pen name, while the final piece in this section offers an insight into Teffi’s first visit to an editorial office (you can read it for yourselves in The Paris Review).

The six pieces in the second section, Staging Posts, focus on Teffi’s personal life, ranging from reminiscences of her childhood and adolescence through to her days as a young mother with a toddler to care for. Liza, a story featuring one of Teffi’s childhood friends, fizzes with the tales children tell to amaze their pals. In the appropriately titled Love, Teffi recalls her first love, an experience saturated with the mix of excitement and pain that is so characteristic of this time in any young girl’s life.

And it was during this spring, the ninth of my life, that my first love came, revealed itself and left—in all its fullness, with rapture and pain and disenchantment, with all that is to be expected of any true love. (pg. 40-41)

In The Green Devil and Staging Posts, both of which focus on Teffi’s adolescence, one can sense her longing to be an adult, a grown-up lady attending dinners and dances and other such affairs. While some of the pieces in this section seem at first rather amusing or ironic, they are in fact underscored with a deep sense of melancholy and sadness, often ending on a poignant note. I found these works some of the most affecting in the collection. Running through this book are hints of Teffi’s longing for her homeland, a world virtually erased by the events of history.

Next comes one of the most interesting sections of this collection, Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War. Rasputin, Teffi’s fascinating account of her two encounters with this legendary figure, turned out to be one of the highlights in Subtly Worded, and it’s wonderful to see it reproduced here in this new volume. As I’ve already written about Rasputin, I won’t cover it again here, but please do take a look at my previous post for Teffi’s wonderful observations on this mercurial figure.

In New Life, one of the longest pieces in the collection, Teffi presents her recollections of Lenin taken from the time she spent working on the literary section of a newly established newspaper, also titled ‘New Life’. (The paper was established to take its political direction from the Social Democrats under the stewardship of Lenin himself.) This is Teffi at her most observant as she offers us a terrifying insight into the psychology of this controversial revolutionary. As far as Teffi could see, Lenin ‘considered everyone to be capable of treachery for the sake of personal gain. A man was good only insofar as he was necessary to the cause. And if he wasn’t necessary—to hell with him.’ All in all, his opinion of human nature was pretty low.

As an orator, Lenin did not carry the crowd with him; he did not set a crowd on fire, or whip it up into a frenzy. He was not like Kerensky, who could make a crowd fall in love with him and shed tears of ecstasy; I myself witnessed such tears in the eyes of soldiers and workers as they showered Kerensky’s car with flowers on Marinsky Square Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corners of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden. He would batter away to get the answer he wanted. (pg. 106)

Teffi is very adept at presenting stories with stories, little vignettes of life in a time of suspicion and uncertainty. I love the image of this reporter hiding under the table during a private meeting, not to mention the questions it raises the following day:

Klyachko was an extraordinary reporter. His exploits were legendary. Once, apparently, he had sat under the table in the office of the Home Secretary during a closed meeting. The next day, an account of the meeting appeared in Klyachko’s paper in the section called “Rumours”. It caused panic among those at the top. How could the reporter have founds all this out? Who had let the information slip? Or had a bribe of several thousand changed hands? But then, that was a monstrous suggestion! For some time, people tried to identify the guilty party—and they, of course, got nowhere. The guilty party was the footman, who had received a hefty tip from Klyachko for hiding him under the green baize. (pg. 97)

Also worthy of a mention here is The Gadarene Swine, a sharp and powerful piece that highlights the differing perspectives of the various factions who are fleeing from the Bolsheviks, in other words, the ‘refugees from Sovietdom’.

They are indeed all running away from the Bolsheviks. But the crazed swine are escaping from Bolshevik truth, from socialist principles, from equality and justice, while the meek and frightened are escaping from untruth, from Bolshevism’s black reality, from terror, injustice and violence. (pg 157)

In this story, Teffi highlights the plight of everyday folk, the ordinary people who find themselves cast adrift in an unfamiliar world with little in the way of food, shelter or social structure to support them. It’s brave piece of writing, all the more impactful for the artful style Teffi employs to send a message to the powers that be.

The final section of the collection features Teffi’s reminiscences of some of the writers and artists she met during her life. Authors such as Tolstoy whom she visited in her youth and the artist, Ilya Repin, who painted a very tender portrait of Teffi after being touched by one of her stories, a tale called The Top.

In The Merezhkovskys, one of my favourite pieces from the collection, we meet the writers Dmitry Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Gippius (a Symbolist poet) whom Teffi spent time with during her refugee days in in Biarritz. Both unique individuals in their different ways, they ‘each could have been the central character in a long psychological novel’. So out of touch with reality were the Merezhkovskys that they lived in a world of ideas, unable to understand other people or the fundamentals of life itself. Money in particular was a source of frustration for this couple. They were reluctant to pay for anything, often considering as unjust even the most understandable requests for payment (as illustrated in this next passage).

They were always irritated, astonished, even sincerely outraged by the need to pay bills. Zinaida Nikolaevna told me indignantly about how they just had a visit from the man who hired out bed linen.

“The scoundrel just won’t leave us alone. Yesterday he was told that we were out, so he sat in the garden and waited for us. Thanks to that scoundrel, we couldn’t even go for a walk.” (pg. 182)

This is another marvellous collection from Teffi, all the more fascinating for its diversity and glimpses of a vanished world. Her pieces are by turns ironic, insightful and poignant. This book comes highly recommended both for fans of Teffi and for readers who are new to her work.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates another of Teffi’s many talents, her skill for painting vivid pen-portraits in just a few sentences. Here she describes Izmailov, an editor on the Stock Exchange Gazette, a thin rather sinister man, dressed all in black, ‘he looked as if he had been sketched in black ink’.

Izmailov truly was weird. He lived in the grounds of the Smolensk cemetery, where his father had once been a priest. He practised black magic, loved telling stories about sorcery, and he knew charms and spells. Thin, pale and black, with a thin strip of bright red mouth, he looked like a vampire. (pg 112)

My thanks to Pushkin Press for a review copy of this book. For other perspectives, here are links to posts from Karen, Melissa and Shoshi.

Rasputin and Other Ironies was translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

As many of will you know by now, I’m like a magnet for these beautiful Pushkin Collection books from Pushkin Press. Last year I bought Subtly Worded, a collection of short stories by Teffi (a pen name for the Russian author, Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya). I was planning to post this review in August to link up with Biblibio’s Women in Translation event, but I accidentally pressed ‘publish’ while drafting it yesterday! My #WITMonth has started a little early.

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Teffi was born in 1872 into an esteemed and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of 40 she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles.

The stories in Subtly Worded are grouped into five sections covering various periods in Teffi’s life starting with her early stories written before the Russian Revolution through to later stories of life as an émigré in Paris. The collection closes with a series of haunting works from the period prior to her death in 1952. As with other short story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn – rather, my aim is to give a flavour of themes along with some thoughts on the collection as a whole.

Teffi began her literary career by writing a series of satirical pieces and her talent for wit is evident in the early stories included here in Subtly Worded. ‘Will-power’, the story of an alcoholic who puts his inner mettle to the test, is tinged with irony. And in ‘The Hat’, one of my favourite stories from this collection, we are introduced to the poet without any poems:

The poet was someone very interesting.

He had not yet written any poems –he was still trying to come up with a pen name—but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious, perhaps even more so than many a real poet with real, ready-made poems. (pg. 35)

‘The Hat’ also offers a sharp and witty insight into the ability of a stylish new hat (or any such article of clothing) to alter a woman’s mood. In this scene, Varenka is admiring herself in her new hat, ‘a deep-blue hat with a deep-blue bow and a deep-blue bird, a true bluebird of happiness.’ She is anticipating the arrival of her friend, the poet with no poems.

She can be arch, she can be tempestuous, or dreamy, or haughty. She can be anything – and whatever she does she can carry it off with style. (pg. 36)

This story, which ends on an amusing note, seems to typify much of Teffi’s work from this period.

There are one or two more poignant pieces too. ‘The Lifeless Beast’ tells of a young girl who feels desperately lonely at home due to a breakdown in relations between her mother and father. Her only friend is a soft toy – a stuffed ram that she longs to bring to life.

He always looked at Katya with gentle affection. He never made any complaints or reproaches and he understood everything. (pg. 43)

But as the weeks pass by, and the ram turns grubby and worn he becomes a metaphor for the parents’ decaying marriage.

The second group of stories, those covering the period 1916-19, are especially interesting. ‘One Day in the Future’ takes a satirical look at the Communist movement. It describes a world where the old social orders are a reversed: doctors are reduced to the roles of servants; vice-admirals act as couriers; draymen and watchmen are elevated to a higher status.

His doorman had once been a singer at the Imperial Theatre. With the graceful magnificence of Verdi’s Don Carlos, he flung open the doors before Terenty.

The cabby was a good one, even if he was a former botany professor. Though that may have been why he talked with such enthusiasm about oats. (pg. 81)

One of the most fascinating pieces in the whole collection is ‘Rasputin’, an account of Teffi’s own encounters with this legendary figure. Here’s how she describes him:

Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to have been gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, piercing, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes. Whenever he said something, he would look round the whole group, his eyes piercing each person in turn, as if to say, “Have I given you something to think about? Are you satisfied? Have I surprised you?” (pg. 104)

Rasputin is drawn to Teffi and cannot understand why she fails to respond to his charms – he is clearly not accustomed to meeting such resistance from anyone, let alone a woman. Teffi detects something deeply unpleasant and chilling about the atmosphere surrounding Rasputin: ‘the grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark beyond our knowledge.’ There is the sense that one could quite easily fall under his hypnotic spell and never be able to break free from it.

In the third section, the stories from Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, we learn a little of Teffi’s life as an émigré. ‘Que Faire?’ perfectly captures the mood amongst the community:

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him. (pg. 139)

This sense of mutual wariness seeps into everyday conversations amongst the lesrusses in which everyone’s name is prefaced by the phrase ‘that-crook , a habit that gives rise to comments such as this:

“Some of us got together at that-crook Velsky’s yesterday for a game of bridge. There was that-crook Ivanov, that-crook Gusin, that-crook Popov. Nice crowd.” (pg. 140)

Several of the remaining stories in this section are shot through with a strong sense of nostalgia, a deep longing for the days of Teffi’s childhood in her beloved homeland.

Section IV contains two Magic Tales from the 1930s, including ‘The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)’. This is another highlight of the collection, a haunting story that feels grounded in truth. In this extract, Teffi recalls a time during the Civil War.

That evening I wept for a long time. I was burying my past. I understood for the first time that all the paths I had taken, all the paths I had followed to reach my present position, had been entirely destroyed – blown up like railway tracks behind the last train of a retreating army. (pg. 218)

The final stories in this collection are deeply melancholic in tone. Once again, there is a strong sense that Teffi is drawing on her own life experience. This is especially clear in ‘And Time Was No More’, a poignant tale of dreams reaching back into the author’s time in St Petersburg.

Subtly Worded is a fascinating collection, notable for the sheer variety of stories it contains. What makes these pieces particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience. Subtly Worded is another gem from Pushkin Press, one of my go-to publishers for interesting literature in translation.

Grant (1streading) and Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) have also reviewed this excellent collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 3/20, #TBR20 round 2.

In the Twilight by Anton Chekhov (tr. Hugh Aplin)

In the Twilight, a collection of sixteen short stories compiled by Chekhov himself, was first published in Russian in 1887. The collection was a major critical and personal success for Chekhov as it marked his transition from the comic sketch writer of his early years to the acclaimed author of impressive short stories. This new edition of In the Twilight (published in the UK by Alma Classics) presents all sixteen stories from the original collection in a fresh translation by Hugh Aplin. This beautiful edition also contains a short introduction and a biography of key events in Chekhov’s life.

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As with other short story collections I’ve covered here, I’m not going to try to review each tale in turn but to give a sense of the themes and a little of what I thought of this collection as a whole. Many of these stories are set at least in part in the twilight hours or at night, but the title In the Twilight also offers an indication of the tone of this collection. Several of these stories convey a sense of sadness, a melancholy tone, scenes of darkness alongside the light as individuals’ lives turn on the tiniest of moments.

In Verochka, one of my favourites from the collection, Vera, a twenty-one-year-old country girl, declares her love for Ivan Ognev, a rather naïve statistician who has been visiting her father on business. When Ognev leaves the country to return to the city, Vera accompanies him to the outskirts of her village where she makes her feelings clear. It’s a story of missed chances, pain and regret as Ognev struggles to respond to Vera’s advances:

“And what if we meet in ten years or so?” he said. “What will we be like then? You’ll already be the venerable mother of a family, and I the author of some venerable collection of statistics that no one needs, the thickness of forty thousand such collections. We’ll meet and remember old times…Now we can feel the present, it fills us and excites us, but then, when we meet, we’ll no longer remember the date, the month, even the year when we last saw each other on this little bridge. Quite likely you’ll have changed…Listen, are you going to change?” (pg. 60, Alma Classics)

The theme of opportunities, of chances there for the taking, is also present in On the Road, one of Chekhov’s classic stories. A man and woman meet in the travelling room at a wayside inn when they are both forced to take shelter from a snowstorm. During the night, they tell each other of the troubles in their lives and the possibility of a deeper relationship hangs in the air. When they come to part in the morning, the woman seems hesitant – it’s a scene charged with emotion:

Ilovaiskaya was silent. When the sleigh had moved off and begun to skirt a large snowdrift, she turned to look back at Likharyov with an expression that suggested she wanted to say something to him. He ran over to her, yet she said not a word to him, but only glanced at him through long eyelashes on which hung flakes of snow… (pg. 104)

In other stories, we appear to join the main characters mid-scene which has the effect of hooking the reader into the story from the opening paragraphs. Here’s a passage from the first page of Misfortune which tells of a game of love between a young married woman, Sofya Petrovna, and her attractive, well-educated pursuer, Ivan Mikhailovich:

“I didn’t expect to meet you here,” Sofya Petrovna was saying, looking at the ground and touching last year’s leaves with the tip of her parasol, “but now I’m glad that I have. I need to have a serious and definitive talk with you. Please, Ivan Mikhailovich, if you really do love and respect me, then stop your pursuit! You follow me like a shadow, you’re forever looking at me with no good in your eyes, you declare your love, write strange letters and…and I don’t know when it’s all going to end!…” (pg. 105)

After she informs Ivan that their relationship must end, Sofya is torn between a sense of duty to her husband and feelings of attraction towards her lover. It’s one of the most interesting stories in the collection, especially as it explores the emotional dynamics at play.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chekhov’s stories are very atmospheric with snowy landscapes and howling winds featuring heavily in many of these tales:

The snowdrifts were covered with a thin, icy crust; tears trembled on them and on the trees, and spilling down the roads and paths was a dark slush made up of mud and melting snow. In short, there was a thaw on the earth, but the sky could not see it through the dark night and, for all it was worth, was sprinkling flakes of new snow onto the melting earth. And the wind was wandering like a drunkard…It would not allow the snow to settle on the earth and was spinning it around in the darkness as it liked… (p. 39)

Further, the dusky light and night-time settings often add to the mood. In A Bad Business, for instance, a night watchman on patrol in a graveyard encounters a wandering pilgrim. The wanderer claims to be lost, but this is an unsettling little story, and things are not quite as they appear at first sight.

In other stories we encounter a variety of seemingly ordinary people going about lives: two policeman escorting a tramp to the District town; a Public Prosecutor searching for a way to dissuade his young son from smoking; two children delighted by the arrival of a litter of kittens…there are many more.

All in all, In the Twilight is a fascinating collection of stories and an excellent introduction to Chekhov’s writing. Several of these stories finish at just the right point leaving the reader to imagine or guess what might happen next – that’s not a bad thing, to leave your audience wanting a little more.

Karen at Kaggsy’s Booking Ramblings has also reviewed this collection.

In the Twilight is published in the UK by Alma Classics. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (review)

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (tr. by Andrew Bromfield) is the first novella in Peirene Press’s Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series, and having now read the full set, I think it’s my favourite of the three. (You can read my thoughts on the other two here: The Blue Room and Under the Tripoli Sky.)

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Kyrgyzstan-born Ismailov moved to Uzbekistan as a young man and now works for the BBC World Service in the UK. His democratic beliefs forced him to flee to the UK in 1994, and to this day his work remains banned in Uzbekistan. The Dead Lake, a novella first published in Russian in 2011, is set in the Kazakh Steppe region and comes with a foreboding preface:

Between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS) a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out, comprising 125 atmospheric and 343 underground blasts. The aggregate yield of the nuclear devices tested in the atmosphere and underground at the SNTS (in a populated region) exceeded by a factor of 2,500 the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans in 1945. (preface, Peirene Press)

This novella tells the story of Yerzhan, a twenty-seven-year-old man trapped inside the body of a twelve-year-old.  An unnamed narrator encounters Yerzhan while travelling across the Kazakh countryside by train. At first sight, he assumes Yerzhan to be a young boy selling yoghurt and playing the violin to amuse passengers during the journey. But when he hears the boy’s deep voice, our narrator is shocked to discover that Yerzhan is an adult. The men strike up a conversation and we rewind several years as Yerzhan reveals his backstory.

As a young boy, Yerzhan lives with his mother, uncles and grandparents in one of two houses in an isolated way station on the Kazakhstan railway. From an early age he displays a talent for music and learns to play the dombra and violin. School is a long donkey ride away, and the boy spends his days playing with Aisulu, the daughter of the neighbouring family, playing the violin and listening to fables.

Ismailov captures the stark beauty of the Kazakh landscape so effectively it could be another character in the book. The writing is lyrical and poetic with snatches of lyrics from folk songs and poetry threaded through Yerzhan’s tale.

Life is simple here in the Kazakh steppe, and Yerzhan’s childhood should be a happy one. However, as in many such stories, there is a dark shadow lying in the background. Every now and again, the families’ lives are disturbed by the sound of explosions from the nuclear test site, ‘an inescapable, terrible, abominable thing that came a rumbling and a trembling.’ In this scene, Yerzhan, his grandfather and uncle are travelling by train when they hear the ‘clangerous, forgotten sound’ of the Zone:

The train clattered along the frozen rails. The fierce cold of the steppe blew in through the wagon door, which stood slightly ajar. But suddenly the shadows in the wagon shifted abruptly, as if pushed aside by the huge hairy legs of the fly on Yerzhan’s nose. A din louder than its buzzing, worse than the rumble of the wagon and the empty metal bread boxes followed, penetrating the eardrums of the men and the boy. The wagon began to dance. The old men disappeared through the open door. The fly made the ground under Yerzhan’s feet spin. Then it dragged him into a rumbling darkness.

The Zone! That’s how Yerzhan remembered that day, when the wagons toppled off the track and lay in the steppe. (pgs. 28-9)

Yerzhan’s Uncle Shaken (who also happens to be Aisulu’s father) works at the atomic plant. A staunch supporter of the Soviet propaganda of the time, Shaken takes every opportunity to lecture Yerzhan’s family on the importance of developing a nuclear capability:

He preached to the others that it was more than just an atom bomb. It was our Soviet response to the arms race, without which we would all have been gone a long time ago. But the blasts were necessary for peaceful purpose too. In order to build communism! ‘It is our absolute duty not merely to catch up with, but to overtake the Americans! In case there’s a third world war!’ he concluded with his hallmark phrase. (pg. 47)

The pivotal moment in the Yerzhan’s life comes when Uncle Shaken takes the children on a visit to his place of work and the ‘Dead Lake.’ Despite a warning not to touch or drink the water from this lake, the young boy cannot resist its beauty. Having taken Aisulu’s hand for a moment, he lets go, strips down to his underclothes and immerses himself in the forbidden waters:

It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples, no trembling – a bottle-green, glassy surface with only cautious reflections of the boys’ and girls’ faces as they peeped at its bottom by the shore. Could there possibly be some fairly-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water? (pg. 65)

The terrible consequences of his dip become apparent when Yerzhan’s body stops growing. By the time he reaches twelve, the other children start to outgrow him, and his stunted development becomes noticeable. Yerzhan’s family feed the boy liver, fish oil and vegetables. They visit a faith healer and resort to grotesque and painful physical methods in an effort to stretch the boy’s bones. All attempts prove fruitless, and Yerzhan is left feeling angry and fearful as he sees Aisulu slipping away from him:

The same fear that had always begun with a trembling in his knees and frozen as a heavy ache in his stomach seemed to have risen higher up now, right up to his throat – and got stuck there, preventing his body from growing. (pg. 71)

This is a story that will appeal to lovers of fables and folk tales, but it’s bleak and haunting one. As you’ll have guessed from the outset, there is no happy ending here. Like many other Peirene novellas, this one packs a punch – like an iron fist in a velvet glove. The narrator is left to reflect on the horror of it all, the lives marred by the terrible legacy of nuclear radiation:

What unpredictable and crooked experiment had I glanced and seen in him – this wunderkind Yerzhan, imprinted as a crumpled shadow alongside the grass, the trees and the birds in the concrete wall of the Zone, jutting out of the steppe? (pg. 120)

Claire (at Word by Word) Grant (at 1stReading), MarinaSofia (at findingtimetotime) and Stu (at Winstonsdad’s) have also reviewed this novella.

The Dead Lake is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: personal copy. Book 1/20 in my #TBR20.

Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine, tr. by Geoffrey Strachan

When the IFFP longlist was announced in early March, I was excited to see this novel amongst the contenders. While I haven’t read any of Andreï Makine’s previous books, I know Stu (at Winstonsdad’s blog) rates this author very highly, so I was eager to get to this one.

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Brief Loves That Live Forever comprises of a series of eight episodes set within the context of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union; each of these vignettes could be considered a short story in itself, yet they are connected by the same narrator looking back on particular moments in his life.

The book opens as our unnamed narrator recalls walking home with a friend, a dissident by the name of Dmitri Ress. Ress, a dying man in his mid-forties, has experienced a sequence of imprisonments primarily for attacking the totalitarian regime and railing against the charade of National parades.  During the walk Ress seems keen to steer our narrator towards a particular route; by so doing they encounter a woman and a young boy as they emerge from an official car. Ress turns away and it seems as if there may be some connection between him and the couple. As our narrator recalls this encounter with Ress it seems to spark memories of other times in his youth — moments of tenderness, fleeting glimpses of beauty and love — and it is these transient moments that endure and resonate most strongly in his life:

What remains is the pale patch of a dress, on the front steps of a little wooden house. The gesture of a hand waving me goodbye. I walk on, drawing further away, turning back after every five paces, and the hand is still visible in the mauve, luminous spring light.

What remains is a fleeting paradise that lives on for all time, having no need of doctrines. (p. 91)

From here onwards Makine uses this theme to lead us through a series of experiences in the narrator’s life, all of which touch upon brief snatches of love, compassion or grace. We see a young girl desperately searching for a grandmother whom she has never met; a grief-stricken young woman mourning the passing of her husband; an elderly couple of seeking shelter from a storm; a lover immersing her face in a bouquet of flowers. Here’s our narrator recalling this moment in their affair:

She comes in, kisses me, sees the bouquet. And asks no questions. She quite simply leans forward, buries her face in the subtly scented halo of flowers, closes her eyes. And when she stands up, her eyes are misty with tears. “They smell of winter,” she says. “We met in December, didn’t we…”

That night there is an unaccustomed gentleness in the way we make love, as if we had found one another again after a very long separation, having suffered greatly and grown old. (p. 131-132)

These moments also offer glimmers of light in our protagonist’s world, forming the greatest defence against the grim reality and hollow emptiness of the Soviet system. The encounters are played out against the backdrop of the political development of The Soviet Union from the 1960s to the 1980s and representations of the totalitarian regime are never very far away. Early in the novel we see our narrator when, as a young boy, he becomes trapped within the imposing entrails of a grandstand used for parades:

Sunk in the torpor of a condemned man, I saw I was in a vast spider’s web spun from iron. This three-dimensional trellis was everywhere…My terror was so profound that, within this prison-like captivity, I must have glimpsed a more immense reality concerning the country I lived in, whose political character I was just beginning to grasp, thanks to snatches of conversation here and there… (p.36)

There are other symbols of the Brezhnev-era regime too; the leader’s ‘imposing face, an authoritarian gaze beneath bushy eyebrows’ on a vast hoarding on the facade on a railway station (p. 98) and an enormous sterile apple orchard, ‘an example of a Potemkin village, Soviet style’ (p. 139).

Brief Loves That Live Forever is a wonderful novel studded with beautifully haunting images, many of which are almost certainly set to drift through my mind in the days to come. Stu, in his review, likened the experience of reading this book to looking through a collection of old sepia-tinged photographs and how these can evoke memories of the past…and that’s very much how it feels for me, too. While each episode could work as a short story in its own right, they build and come together to form a more powerful, more resonant whole. And at the end of the book we come full circle and return to our narrator’s memories of Dmitri Ress, where we learn a little more about his past, causing us to reflect on our impressions of events and themes introduced in the first chapter.

There’s a melancholy, almost meditative quality to Makine’s writing, and in this respect I think it shares something with Javier Marías’s The Infatuations (also longlisted for the IFFP). Such elegant writing, too; everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Makine’s prose through to Geoffrey Strachan’s sensitive translation from the French. (Siberian-born Makine now lives in France and writes in French.)

Brief Loves That Live Forever is one of my favourite books longlisted for this year’s IFFP. I’m delighted to see it on our shadow group’s shortlist, if not the official one.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this book: Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Stu’s blog (17th March 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Brief Loves That Live Forever is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: personal copy.